Reimagining the near past and constructing local identities. A Fulbright project by Linnea West (2012-13)
Little Warsaw is the collaboration of András Gálik and Bálint Havas, two Hungarian artists who have been creating artwork that deals with culture and context together since 1999. I went to their studio in Buda to meet with the artists. They brought an armchair into the living room of their studio for me, stepping around the mosaic of curtains that faced the windows, and we began to talk. We spoke about the current changes to the funding and management of the national cultural budget. How I found them shocking and angering, but Hungarians, even while being surprised, didn’t seem to me to be as emotionally invested. No strangers to this sort of thing, Havas suggested after so many years of extreme situations and changes, it was a coping mechanism.
Then, we turned to Little Warsaw’s work as I asked the artists about The Body of Nefertiti, a project I originally read when it was created for the 2003 Venice Biennial. For this project, the artists ‘reunited’ the head of Nefertiti, currently in a Berlin museum, with its body- a contemporary, bronze statue of a woman that they created. (Video of it here.) It was fascinating to hear about the months of difficult negotiations to secure the agreement to use Nefertiti and some of the compromises that were made. For example, instead of being public, only about 20 people actually saw the reunion happen. Also, the director being the one to actually hold and move the head was always a stipulation; his feeling was that the risk involved with moving such a priceless object could only be answered by personal responsibility. For me, the heart-in-your-throat feeling of watching it being lifted—all 32 kilos of it—by the director of the museum, is incredible. It is telling about the sacredness with which we invest some of our cultural objects that are, at the end of the day, only painted stone. The response to this re-contextualization, especially from Egypt which has long lobbied for the restitution of its cultural patrimony, was highly critical at the time. Havas considered the resulting international media attention interesting to watch.
Because of my own investigations into the structure of the Hungarian art scene, I asked about their social art map of Hungary created at Trafó in 2006, Only Artists. So, they set up a projector and showed me some images and explained what they were doing (mapping artist-run spaces, not including themselves, branded by their logo in the middle which also divided the scene into pre- and post-1989). Also at Trafó more recently was the 2011 Battle of Inner Truth, a battle of martial statuary that looks like a child’s over-sized play battle. The models of historical statues (all under 70 cm or something) and other pieces (like African statues from the Museum of Ethnography) numbered about 80 pieces in all, borrowed from museums for the exhibition. This piece was later taken entire and installed in Leipzig.
Then Gálik showed me their 2004 piece Deserted Memorial, which tell the story of a forgotten plaque in the center of Budapest. Defaced during socialism for being a remembrance of the former communist regime, Little Warsaw removed this largely unnoticed marble plaque from the wall and installed it as a sculptural work in a park in the Hague opposite the bench of a Swiss artist. Meanwhile the newly exposed brick functioned as a temporary poster space, becoming visible again. Then, Little Warsaw returned the memorial and cemented it back into the wall of the building, after which a temporary plaque was put on top of it, announcing a forthcoming permanent plaque. Finally a large black piece of inscribed stone commemorating the original plaque was added–all of this happening over the original defaced monument. Sometime after that, a vandal added a large splash of red paint. You can still find this monument and all of its historical layers, except perhaps the red paint, on a street corner near the Central Market.
This complicated history, in which the statue goes through many iterations due to changes in the historical consciousness of society, is emblematic of the history of the country and region, littered as it is with such public monuments. (For a humorous take, see this billboard.)